Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On the purpose of fasting.

For Eastern Christians following the New Calendar, today is the first day of the Nativity Fast, sometimes called St. Philip's Fast because it begins the day after the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle. Like the Season of Advent in the Western churches, the Nativity Fast serves as a time of spiritual preparation for Christmas; the beginning of the Nativity Fast offers a reminder that the Feast of the Nativity is a mere forty days away - a fact that leads me reflect soberly and with some surprise on how quickly 2011 has gone by!

As its name implies, the Nativity Fast is intended to be a time of fasting, which has traditionally meant that those who are able to do so should abstain completely from meat, poultry and dairy products and consume fish, oil and wine only on specified days. Of course, there is a great deal more to fasting than merely watching what one eats. In a recent post on the start of the Nativity Fast on his blog Glory to God for All Things, Father Stephen Freeman explains the true purpose of fasting:
I read recently (though I cannot remember where) that the rejection of Hesychasm was the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia = Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness. But ceaseless prayer and inner stillness are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything.

And it is this same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian version of kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.

I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who "fasted well." Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.

Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is "why do we eat?" Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.

. . .

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and that in dying we can be born to eternal life.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.


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